Brandon Ketchum

Brandon Ketchum, right, is pictured with his brother, Brad Ketchum. Brandon committed suicide on July 8, the day after he asked to be admitted to the psych ward at the Iowa City VA and was told the facility was closed.


The details are depressingly familiar.

A young Marine asked in February to be admitted to the VA hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. His doctor alerted his family that the 24-year-old had suicidal intentions.

Robert Franks-Mess was permitted to stay at the VA for two days, according to reports. The day after he was released, Feb. 18, he shot himself.

It's Brandon Ketchum all over again. The difference: Brandon asked to be admitted to the psyche unit at the VA in Iowa City and was told the place was full. He didn't get two days.

Brandon drove back home to Davenport, posted about his hopelessness on Facebook, then shot himself.

A few months after Brandon died, Curtis Gearhart, 32, of Ankeny, took his own life. He reportedly could not withstand the five-to-six-week wait for an appointment at the VA in Des Moines.

Seems like a lot, doesn't it? But it's even worse if you look at the national numbers. 

An estimated 20 American veterans kill themselves every day. That's almost one every hour. Most of the deaths are not in the news. But you can spot them in the obituaries — the 20-something and 30-something men and women who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and "died suddenly at home."

We don't need the Inspector General for the VA to tell us the agency is in over its head. Even if we knew of a cure for PTSD, recent history calls into question the VA's ability to administer it.

The Inspector General is looking into Brandon's case. The office last fall told a fired-up Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, that results should be ready "in the spring of 2017."

We're now almost nine months into a review of a VA appointment that took, literally, minutes.

Meanwhile, Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, continues to drum up support in Washington for the Brandon Ketchum Never Again Act, which would make emergency psychiatric help mandatory for all veterans.

But a recent disclosure by the Inspector General delivers doubt not only about the VA's ability to improve treatment, but also its willingness to do so.

In a November letter to Ernst, Inspector General Michael J. Missal wrote that his staffers, "... are simultaneously working on several significant projects, and we are constantly balancing workloads to ensure reports are published as timely as possible while maintaining their thoroughness and accuracy."

One such project was an evaluation and report on the VA's Veterans Crisis Line, which is basically a suicide hotline.

"... it found that VA's VCL (Veterans Crisis Line) management team faced significant obstacles providing suicide prevention and crisis intervention services to veterans, service members and their families," the report states. "The VCL's biggest challenges include meeting the operational and business demands of responding to over 500,000 calls per year."

A half-million calls.

"Veterans are at a disproportionately high risk for suicide compared to the rate of U.S. civilian adults," Missal concluded in the evaluation. ""The VCL is a critical effort to reduce veterans suicide for those who call in crisis. Therefore, it is imperative that VA take further steps to increase the effectiveness of VCL operations."

The Inspector General's office made 16 recommendations, citing various weaknesses and failures in the Crisis Line system.

The report, released March 20, points out something discouraging: More than a year ago, the Inspector General issued a report on the New York-based Veterans Crisis Line. It included seven recommendations.

"While the Veterans Health Administration agreed with all recommendations, as of the publication of this new report, all seven remain open," the March 20 investigative conclusion states. "Failure to implement our previous recommendations impairs the VCL's ability to increase the quality of crisis intervention services to veterans seeking help."

Brandon knew something about the Veterans Crisis Line.

According to his medical records from the Iowa City VA, he acknowledged having called, saying, "... it was not as helpful as he anticipated it being and (was) unsure about using it in the future."

The point here is not to argue that the inpatient treatment Brandon sought or a more efficiently run Crisis Line would have spared him. No one can say what, if anything, would have convinced him his life would get better.

But how much confidence can we have in the VA's ability and/or willingness to respond to the Inspector General in one Davenport soldier's case if it ignored inspection results and recommendations on how to better handle a half-million calls for help?

It now appears changes at the VA will require an act of Congress. Fortunately, one is pending.

Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or